The thing inside your belly, which you have carried for four years, is not a baby.
All some women need to know they are pregnant are the physical tip-offs: a bulging belly, vomiting, tiredness, bloating and the other symptoms 43-year-old Rose has experienced for four years. When I first called her in October, and she said she was in distress and could not talk now, Rose was at the climax of yet another bout. It began in 2018. Rose missed her period and went to see one doctor in Enugu, who said she was pregnant and gave her some drugs. Soon, she noticed a few changes in her body, and they tasted like heaven.
Rose was raised in Anambra State, the heart of Igbo Land, where a girl is born to be a mother. As she aged, the pressure to get married and make children mounted. Rose could not get a husband until 34, and six years after, she was nearing menopause. It was in Enugu that her fear of never becoming a mother was calmed, and it did not matter that the doctor said she was carrying a ‘cryptic’ baby, the one that gulps a few millions at birth.
CRYPTIC IN QUOTES
In one out of 475 cases, women are not aware of their pregnancies until several months after conception or labour pains take them by surprise. No symptoms, nothing. A Facebook user, Nuella Chiamaka, recently narrated how a lady gave birth in the toilet not knowing she had been pregnant. She had stomach cramps and difficulty passing stool. When she managed to pass stool, a baby came out. Cryptic pregnancy is mysterious like that, and doctors say it’s caused by hormonal imbalance. But in eastern Nigeria, cryptic pregnancy means something else, a fraud. I call it ‘cryptic’ (in quotes) pregnancy; some call it crypto pregnancy. It involves sexual exploitation, and rearing and selling of babies, and it is popular.
At ‘cryptic’ clinics, women get pregnant even when a sperm has not met up with an egg, and months or years later, they fall into a long sleep and wake up to a baby or more beside them. ‘Cryptic’ clinics are often isolated, their nurses operating like cultists, deeply personal and secretive. “If you go to another hospital, they’ll kill your baby,” they tell their victims, or “jealous medical practitioners are after us for helping you”. That way, the preys protect the predators, and the industry is wrapped into itself.
Under a viral tweet by The_Bearded_Dr_Sina in April, I found a few comments. The authors were not the victims of ‘cryptic’ pregnancy, but they knew a few victims. In one instance, I contacted somebody who knew somebody who knew a victim, and at the end of the chain was Rose.
‘Cryptic’ pregnancy had become a thing at this point. It had been discussed at the national assembly and the ministers of health and women affairs had been summoned for enlightenment. Reps had also adopted a motion titled ‘Need to Investigate the Implication of Cryptic Pregnancies in Nigeria’.
I sent Rose a message, hoping it would open her up: “One Doctor Vincent defrauded you of N1.3 million in Enugu. Do you need help recovering it?”
A few days later, we met in front of a church in Awka. Rose, a fair-skinned woman, came in the company of her younger brother, Peter. The things she struggled to remember, Peter narrated: how they met Dr Vincent, an Enugu-based hospital owner, in October 2021 and he promised a delivery for N1.8 million; how they deposited N800,000 and went with the balance on the delivery day; how they waited for several hours for the doctor who was said to be busy in the theatre; how they found pregnant teenage girls crammed in a room in the hospital; and how after several hours of waiting, the doctor said he was already tired from a hours-long surgery and could no longer proceed with the delivery.
Rose was seated between Peter and me on a bench. She was suffering from partial memory loss now, and all she wanted was to deliver these babies she had carried for four years. Those who carry theirs for just nine months know what they go through, she told me.
Regions Neuroscience Hospital
After our first meeting in front of that church, Rose and I spoke with an Ogun State-based medical doctor on the phone. She told him she had no doubts she was pregnant. “If you are pregnant, you will know,” she said. According to her, a few clinics had also confirmed the pregnancy, but the doctor said that since ‘cryptic’ pregnancy had become a thing in the area, no one knew what hospital had been compromised. He then recommended Regions Neuroscience Hospital in Owerri for medical examination. “Whatever they tell you there is final,” he said.
The following day, Rose and I headed to Regions in the company of her husband. We arrived when the sun was still soft on the flowers and coconut palms that made the hospital feel like Europe. Regions was nothing Rose had seen before. At the gate, before security men directed us to the specialist out-patient clinic, she exclaimed: “It is very big and fine!”
In the reception, Regions’ CMD came on a large screen at short intervals. He said their experts were trained in the US and the UK, and even the locally trained ones were the best of their kinds.
A lady in a blue-black scrub checked Rose’s vitals and then directed her to her colleague in a purple scrub, who measured her height and weight. The lady in purple led us into the consulting room, where a young lady was seated facing a computer. She was the doctor. Each time Rose answered her question, she typed something on the computer.
“Are you diabetic?” She asked.
“No,” answered Rose.
“Do you suffer from any heart diseases, like hypertension or high blood pressure?
“Had you ever been pregnant before this?”
“How many times?”
“Three times, but each ended in a miscarriage. The three were within two years.”
“How many years did you wait after the last miscarriage?”
“So, when you took in this time, how did you know?”
Rose hesitated. “How did you know you were pregnant?” The doctor asked again.
“I missed my period.”
“You did not go to a hospital to confirm?”
“I did. I went to different hospitals.
“What did they say?
“Different things. But I know that I’m pregnant.”
“Do you have the test results here?”
“No, it’s been long.”
After a pretty long conversation, the doctor handed us a test list and asked us to return with the results. The first two tests were quickly done in the hospital’s laboratory, but Rose needed to be pressed before the ultrasound. Within an hour, she gulped four 40cl bottles of water, yet she felt nothing. It was as if her ‘cryptic’ babies drank the water. When someone else went in on her turn, Rose lamented, looking at her bulging belly: “This thing don suffer me.“
Shortly after, she felt like peeing, but the feeling was so intense that she had to use the restroom before the lady inside the laboratory was done.
It was around 5 pm now, and the road to Awka was both rugged and dangerous. We couldn’t start the process all over. Since today was Friday and the results of the previous tests would not be ready until the following week, we resolved the scan would be done when we returned.
WOMAN WITH THE ‘CRYPTIC’ KIDS
A four-year pregnancy is not just a hard experience, but also a tough story to tell. To show that she was not insane after all, Rose often mentioned other women who had had similar experiences. Her favourite was Mama Chidera, a woman in Onistha who had triplets, twins and a singleton from ‘cryptic’ pregnancy. “The same thing happened to Mama Chidera,” Rose told me, or “Mama Chidera also experienced that.” It was Mama Chidera who introduced her to one nurse in Enugu, who linked her up with Dr Vincent. Although the doctor ran away with a lot of money, he has not broken the love between the two women.
“My first experience was in 2014, when I delivered my twins,” Mama Chidera told me on the phone.
Before the twins, she had longed to conceive for several years, seeking help here and there. All of a sudden, her tummy started swelling, and she felt pregnant. It remained like that until someone introduced her to a nurse in Port Harcourt two years later, who said she was carrying two babies and delivered them for N1.8 million.
“Since then,” Mama Chidera continued, “I have been helping people, a lot of people.”
Among the women Mama Chidera helped was one who had carried her ‘cryptic’ pregnancy for 12 years. “If I did not come to her,” she boasted, “she would still be pregnant now.”
Mama Chidera said she had not had to wait for long to conceive since that Port Harcourt nurse gave her a drug from India, and no subsequent pregnancy lasted two years because she had already known where to get help. That of the triplets lasted just a little over a year, she said, and it would have been shorter if she already had the N1.1 million she was billed. When I asked why ‘cryptic’ babies are so expensive, she said the money was used to buy the drug from India.
“They won’t tell you the name,” she said. “The last time, they only asked me to open my mouth and dropped three in it. Thirty minutes after taking the drug, you’ll deliver.”
BACK TO REGIONS
Rose’s ultrasound result
Returning to Regions Neuroscience Hospital the following Wednesday was a lot of struggle. The road was bad for a pregnant woman, and Rose had barely recovered from the waist and belly aches of the last. If not that she was tired by now and wanted a solution at all cost, she wouldn’t have got into that car again for a three and a half hours’ drive from Awka to Owerri.
We got to the hospital around 1 pm. Roses’s ultrasound was seamless this time, and we were soon in a consulting room. It was not the same room we entered last time, but we met the same doctor, the one who typed into the computer each time she asked a question. After reading the test results, she left the room and then returned about 10 minutes later with a male colleague. She sat in front her computer and read out loud to the other doctor who was seated on the patient’s bed at the other end of the small room:
“So, she’s a 43-year-old woman, para zero plus 4. She’s had four pregnancies but no child. She actually came with a four-year history of pregnancy symptoms and her period also stopped… So, she wanted to run some confirmatory tests to know if she’s pregnant. She had been taking some prenatal vitamins, but she stopped taking them in March 2022. She’s not hypertensive or diabetic… Her physical exam was normal. Abdomen was uniformly enlarged. Uterus was not larger than expected. Urology exam was also normal, so I sent her to do these tests.”
When she was done, the male doctor turned to me and asked, “Are you the husband?”
“No, I’m a friend of the family,” I responded.
“Can you please excuse us for two minutes?”
I met the reception brimming with sounds from the large screen, a cool jam music and voices of epilepsy and seizure patients who had enjoyed free weekly treatment at Regions. They were thanking the hospital and asking more patients to come. I was beginning to be engrossed in the words of a female doctor talking about diabetes mellitus on the screen when I was called back into the consulting room.
“We are sorry,” the male doctor told me. “We didn’t mean to be rude, but it’s normal to speak to patients in private. If there’s a need to speak with a third party, we need to seek the patient’s permission.”
I almost knew what he was going to say next. The Ogun State-based medical doctor I consulted earlier had told me there was no way Rose had been pregnant for four years. The placenta keeps the baby alive in the womb by providing it with oxygen and nutrients, he said, and it does not live for more than nine months.
“I can tell you that we don’t have evidence that Rose is pregnant,” the male doctor said. “The truth is that all the tests you conducted, the pregnancy test, the thyroid test and the ultrasound, came back negative. The only thing this scan is showing is that her liver is enlarged, slightly enlarged.”
CRYPTIC PERSON = DAMAGED INTERNAL ORGANS
On the floor of the House of Representatives in April, Ikenna Elezieanya, the member representing Owerri North/West, said victims of ‘cryptic’ pregnancy often ended up with damaged internal organs from the hormones they are injected with, leading to their death. “Several desperate women who have gone through this process ended up in perpetual sorrow due to the adverse effects of the drugs, which damage the female reproductive sense organs, thus killing some women that have underlying ailments in the process,” he said.
The doctors said Rose needed to see a gynaecologist for further evaluation, especially if she ever wanted to really get pregnant.
When I asked her, the female doctor said she had seen something like this. “It’s called ‘cryptic’ pregnancy,” she said, “and it has happened to several people who went to so-called fertility hospitals for help to get pregnant.”
“What they do is charge them millions of naira and keep injecting them with drugs that will give them symptoms and make them believe they are pregnant. They tell them not to go for antenatal or scan elsewhere, and that if they do, they may lose that baby.
“The fertility clinics already have people that are genuinely pregnant and are waiting to give birth. So, when the women complete their money, they put them to sleep and cut them. When they wake up, they give them their baby and make it look like they had a cesarean section. But that’s for the women who do not know. Some women are in the know; only their husbands are unaware. They also inject them; they still have pregnancy symptoms; their tummy still gets big. Every other person thinks she’s pregnant, but she knows.”
Rose did not know. Not only had several fertility clinics told her she was pregnant, but a few prophets too. One said she was carrying two babies, a male and a female, the male lying on the female. When I asked him how he had come to believe the dusky pregnancy story for so long, Rose’s husband said he saw it in a dream.
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Rose’s test results
A ‘CRYPTIC’ MATERNITY
Nurse Lois’ maternity
After The_Bearded_Dr_Sina’s viral tweet in April, a lady was in his DM to narrate how one Nurse Lois deceived her with a fake twin pregnancy until medical tests set her free after six months. “Those people finished my life with hormonal drugs, wasted my money and time,” she said.
I got Nurse Lois’ number and asked Rose to explain her situation to her. She asked her to locate Erogwe Market in Owerri and then give her a call. Coming from Awka, one will first get to the more popular Irete Market. Erogwe is on the other side of the road, at the foot of St Mark’s Anglican Church. We called Nurse Lois several times on getting to the small market, but she only answered once and kept us waiting. Rose told me they are always scared, those ‘cryptic’ nurses. “She wants to know if I am a spy or something.”
It was the morning of the same Wednesday we visited Regions the second time. We were still heading to the hospital and would return to Awka on the same day. Rose and I moved in and out of the car several times, restless. Her husband rested his back on one side of the car, facing a bread shop we would soon learn belonged to Nurse Lois. She had been watching us all this while. If she had not seen Rose’s belly or I had made strange moves, like positioning a camera, she wouldn’t have shown up. She summoned Rose into her shop, and after a few minutes, they both came into the car.
Nurse Lois wore a pair of black trousers under a white background blouse which gave out much of her arms. She kept leading us into the street until we turned right in front of Open and See Bar at the end of the tarred road we had been on. To the left of the bar was Holiness Evangelical Church. We followed the brown road by the right, the one that leads to Holy Cross Catholic Parish. Soon, we turned right again and stopped in front of a stand-alone building opposite a large cassava farm. Nurse Lois opened the rusty dark-brown gate of the building, and we found a two-flat bungalow. The building wasn’t painted, but the pillars and the downside of the walls were tiled. From the first flat, in front of which a Toyota Corolla car was parked, we heard the loud cry of a newborn. Rose rushed to the entrance and found an old woman tending to a baby. “Congratulations, ma,” she said delightedly.
The second flat was Nurse Lois’ clinic. In the reception, Rose’s husband and I sat on plastic chairs positioned close to an abandoned hospital bed, while Nurse Lois led Rose into a room. When the husband was called in, I asked If I could join the couple in the consulting room, but Nurse Lois said no. She had been looking at me with suspicion.
“He’s my colleague, and he came because of me,” Rose protested.
Reluctantly, the nurse let me in. Apart from its small size and hospital bed in one corner, Nurse Lois’ consulting room was all different from Regions’. No white plastic skeleton hung on the wall, no computer monitor and typewriter on the table, and the floor wasn’t tiled. “The consultation fee comes first,” said the ‘cryptic’ nurse.
After we had handed N5,000 to her, Nurse Lois said she had found a baby in Rose’s belly and the price for delivering it was N1.8 million.
“But somebody already told me I had two babies,” Rose said.
“Na one I see, and na one I tell una the price,” Nurse Lois replied.
“If you then find two at delivery, what happens?” I interrupted.
“Na im be say una go pay another N1.8 million,” said the nurse.
“Everywhere I went, they said I would deliver the first, and then the second after two or three months,” Rose spoke again.
“I don’t advise that one,” Nurse Lois responded. “If they are not mature at the same time, deliver one, and maybe after one year, you’ll deliver the second. If you deliver one and after three months you go and deliver another one, what will people say?”
“Is there a chance you can help reduce the amount?” I asked Nurse Lois.
“No, the drug we use is very scarce now,” she responded.
Nurse Lois said if we came with the money in cash in two days’ time, she’d give Rose the drug, and she’d give birth after 30 minutes. When I asked if she would still be willing to help if we needed one week to look for the money, she said she might no longer have the drug by then.
“But we don’t know the gender,” I said when we were about taking our leave. “Can we know the gender?”
“We don’t detect gender here,” Nurse Lois told me.
Nurse Lois’ Maternity
WHO PROGRAMMED YOU?
Nurse Christiana in the green dress
Mama Chidera gave us the contact of another ‘cryptic’ nurse she said would determine the number of babies in Rose’s belly. Nurse Christiana does not deliver babies; she only helps people get pregnant and then links them up with deliverers. Rose contacted the nurse, who lives in Awka, and she sent her address:
“From Aroma, enter keke to Amenyi. When you get there, ask where you will enter keke to Nkwelle Primary School. There’s a vulcaniser there. Follow the untarred road where the vulcaniser is straight down. You will see one storeyed building painted light green. Opposite the storeyed building is the place.”
Nurse Christiana’s clinic was home to several women. Three with protruded bellies sat on plastic chairs. One stood in front of the house making calls. Rose would learn that she came all the way from Lagos after several years of marriage without a child. After visiting a hospital in Onitsha 15 times, someone recently introduced her to Nurse Christiana.
The nurse came out from one of the rooms in the bungalow holding a plate of herbs which looked like ginger. It is this herb, I would learn, alongside an unnamed ‘foreign drug’ that ‘cryptic’ nurses sell to childless women for a lot of money. One ‘cryptic’ nurse Rose visited in Okoh told me over the phone that she charged up to N450,000 for pregnancy drugs, depending on the number of babies sought. “Money for one is N150,000,” she said. “Money for two is N300,000, and money for three is N450,000.”
Soon, Nurse Christiana invited Rose into one of the rooms in the house, and then a few minutes later, we went to join them.
“Who programmed you?” The nurse asked Rose.
‘Programming’ in ‘cryptic’ vocabulary is the use of hormonal drugs to protrude a tummy and induce pregnancy symptoms. Rose could not exactly tell how she came about the pregnancy, so Nurse Christiana concluded she probably did not know when she was programmed.
“She’s carrying two babies,” the nurse told us,” and it costs N1.8 million to birth one.”
“Are you saying we’ll need N3.6 million to birth the two?” I asked.
“Yes. The drug we use is very expensive. It’s from India, and it’s controlled. We use 2.5ml of the drug for every child, and it’s that 2.5ml that costs N1.8 million. So, the two babies she’s carrying will require 5ml of the drug,” she explained.
“But a nurse in Owerri told us two days ago that she had only one baby,” I queried.
“I don’t know that one o,” the nurse responded. “It’s what I saw that I told you.”
Rose told me the two nurses examined her differently. Nurse Lois inserted a balloon into her cervix and then inflated it, while this woman moved a small device on her tummy. I would later learn that neither of the two is a medical procedure for detecting babies. The first, the Foley bulb induction, is used to induce labour.
The nurse said although she did not deliver babies here, she worked with several clinics that did that. She said we might have to wait for several months after transferring the delivery fee into her account, because the Indian drug was scarce at the moment.
“One of my patients is birthing a baby in Enugu right now,” she said. “She booked four months ago. I’ve been communicating with those handling her delivery.”
When we were about leaving, Nurse Christiana requested for N5,000 consultation fee. “If you had gone to meet a doctor, would you have just said thank you and left?”
Decency Jez Hospital and Maternity
Our next stop was Decency-Jez Hospital and Maternity at No 14, Ojoto Crescent, Trans-Ekulu, Enugu. It is the hospital owned by Dr Vincent, the man who took money from Rose in February. The hospital, now padlocked, used to be a baby factory, I learnt.
When Rose and her brother met Dr Vincent towards the close of 2021, he promised to help with the birth of her ‘cryptic’ baby for N1.8 million. He took N800,000 up front and then gave the couple a delivery date. Upon their arrival with baby items, they learnt the doctor was in the theatre for a surgery, so they waited for him. It was while waiting that they saw several teenage girls clamped in a room, all pregnant.
“I felt like this was not the place I would give birth,” Rose told me. “I felt like something was strange here. So, I asked him to return my money, that I was no longer interested.”
Dr. Vincent said he could no longer proceed with the delivery on that day, but he would not return the N800,000 he had already taken from them. He kept on giving them different delivery dates until the couple sought the help of the Enugu police. This caused the doctor to flee, and since then, neither of them had set eyes on him.
A security man in Ojoto Crescent said the hospital had not been in operation since he got there in July. Decency-Jez has the outlook of a regular Nigerian private hospital, a colonial-taste storeyed building adorned with beautiful flowers. On the sign board was the Cadeus, a short staff entwined by two serpents, and the hospital’s supposed specialties: general surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology. At the bottom of the sign board is a Latin phrase used often during Mass in the Catholic Church. “Benedictus Deus in Secula”: Blessed be God forever.
ONE ‘CRYPTIC’ BIRTH IN ABIA
Juliet had barely finished secondary school when sent to live with her aunty in Irete, Owerri. Unknown to her, her Aunty Agnes’ maternity was a ‘cryptic’ baby factory. The woman’s children were always on the lookout for stranded and frustrated pregnant girls, who would be locked up in the maternity and cared for until they gave birth.
One day, Juliet’s Aunty Agnes said she would be travelling with her to Abia State. While she waited in the car, the driver came through the backyard with two babies. Juliet was still struggling to remember anyone who recently gave birth to a twin in the maternity when her aunt told her she should tell any police officer who asked about the babies on their way that she was the mother and the driver was her husband.
“I was shocked,” Juliet told me. “I did not know where we were carrying babies to.”
In Abia, the driver drove into a lonely area, and one lady came out from nowhere and grabbed the babies. Juliet was scared, thinking the babies had just been stolen, but her Aunty Agnes said that the owner of the babies had just taken them. They got down from the car and then they made their way into an unmarked building no one would think was a maternity.
“There was no sign board,” said Juliet. “It was just a normal compound like ours. We got in and sat down waiting for a particular woman. There was this woman that I saw. She was heavily pregnant. She was doing this normal exercise, as if she was going to give birth. And then my aunt told her driver in Igbo, ‘Onye awun onlye wen nwa’: this is the person that owns the children.”
Again, the young lady was puzzled. How could a heavily pregnant woman already have twins? She asked her aunt, who told her the ‘pregnant’ woman was not pregnant. She was only given drugs to protrude her belly. Juliet learnt that the woman knew she wasn’t pregnant all this while, and that the two babies they brought for her as twins were from two different mothers.
“My aunt said very soon, they would tell the husband to go home and bring baby things, and that before his return, they would inject the woman with a drug to reduce the size of her belly a little and then line up the babies beside her. The woman would keep coming for treatments to bring her belly back to normal,” said Juliet.
For the two babies, Juliet learnt her aunt was paid N950,000: N500,000 for the male and N450,000 for the female. The teenager would run away from her Aunty Agnes’ home, but she would have lived there enough to know that a princess from Abia State was among the pregnant girls in the maternity, and that a pastor always came to pray for the pregnant girls, and that if a girl gave birth in the maternity, she would not be found there the following day.
DNA TO THE RESCUE
DNA result for one of Mama Chidera’s kids
When that male doctor told Rose at Regions that nothing proved that she was pregnant, her eyes brimmed with contempt. She had told me medical doctors knew nothing about ‘cryptic’ pregnancy and yet were after the fertility clinics filling the void. “I’ll bring my babies for you to see when I put to bed,” she told the doctor.
“I don’t want to sound discouraging,” the doctor said laughing, “but in medicine, there’s what we call delusion. Delusion means you believe something is in existence when it actually does not exist. That’s what I feel.”
Outside the hospital, Rose told me she wasn’t surprised the doctor was helpless, as science was blind to her kind of pregnancy. “That was what happened to Mama Chidera, she said. “She and her husband went to different places. Doctors and science are not seeing those babies.”
If Rose had N3.6 million, she would seek help where Mama Chidera and the likes had found it. She said all that was needed now was money and a real ‘cryptic’ nurse like the one who rescued Mama Chidera, and that she would be grateful if this reporter could be of help. So, I asked her if Mama Chidera was willing to prove her children’s maternity through DNA tests. She said yes. Mama Chidera also said yes. If proving that she was truly the mother of her kids would bring any form of help her friend’s way, why not? Just that she would have to seek her husband’s consent. Surprisingly, Mama Chidera’s husband said yes too. He was planning to relocate the family abroad soon, and DNA was a necessary requirement. So, if FIJ was willing to foot the bill, he was willing to provide the kids.
FIJ asked Clina Lancet, a trusted medical laboratory initially founded in South Africa but now with branches in different parts of Africa, to run DNA maternity tests on two of Mama Chidera’s six cryptic kids: one of the nine-year-old triplets and one of the seven-year-old twins. Since she supposedly gave birth to the triplets, the DNA result for one would be consistent for the three, same for the twins.
Exactly one month after samples were taken from the children and their mother, result came out showing that Mama Chidera is not the mother of her boys. Mama Chidera, the supposed mother of six, is actually a mother of none.
NOTE: Names Changed to protect victims
Produced with support from the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development Inclusivity and Accountability project (CMEDIA) funded by the MacArthur Foundation
Independent, public-interest journalism has never been more vital than in times like this when truth is constantly being suppressed. With your support, it will be easier for us to continue speaking truth to power and preserving your right to know
Make a donation to FIJ today
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